Monday, September 12, 2011

Renting a Car in Japan

If you're not quite ready to take the leap to buying your own car in Japan, but you still want access to a vehicle for a few days to travel or move house, consider renting a car. In today's post, we'll mention some attractive reasons to rent in Japan and introduce a site that can set up rentals on your behalf, at a discount and all in English.

The 初心者 mark.
Japanese rental agencies are surprisingly open about who they'll allow to rent a car: I was told that individuals as young as 20 can be the signatory on a rental agreement, and even newly licensed drivers are allowed to handle the vehicle as long as green-and-yellow 初心者 (shoshinsha) markers are used.

Of course, all of Japan's major automakers maintain rental branches complete with websites and customer service numbers. But, outside of international airport branches, you may have difficulty communicating your request without Japanese.

I recommend trying ToCoo, an independent web-based service that will accept your reservation request in English and make arrangements with a local Japanese rental agency on your behalf. Their website is easy to navigate and includes up-to-date lists of rental agency locations all over Japan.

(By the way, we aren't affiliated with ToCoo--several of our writers, myself included, are just satisfied customers. Furthermore, in my own experience, ToCoo has always been able to provide me with a better price quote than when I called the same rental agency directly in Japanese.)

What are the downsides of ToCoo? You'll have to put in your request at least 48 hours in advance of your intended pickup date. (In contrast, it's sometimes possible to make same-day reservations when you contact an agency directly.) Also, ToCoo tends to be a stickler about each agency's opening and closing times. If the branch you rent from closes at 17:00, ToCoo will insist that you have the car back by 17:00. However, often when you walk into the branch to pick up your car (even after making a ToCoo reservation saying you'll have the car back by a certain time), it's usually possible to negotiate an evening return time: The branch employees will explain where to park the car and what to do with the key if you come back after hours.

Prices vary based on the class of car you want to rent, but entry level white-plate cars usually run around 6000 to 8000 per day at ToCoo's site. I've seen kei car prices as low as 3500 for the day during discount campaigns. You can expect rental cars from major agencies to come equipped with top-of-the-line GPS navigation systems, which really helps when you're traversing new territory. It's often also possible to pay a little extra for English GPS.

  • You'll need to provide a credit card number for insurance purposes. No charge will be made to the card (so long as the car survives) and cards issued outside of Japan are OK. On pickup, you'll need to provide a copy of your driver's license or passport + international driver's permit. Then, simply pay cash for the days you intend to use the car and bring it back on time with a full tank of gas. If you come back late or with a tank you forgot to top up, inform the agency and pay the difference--it's all a very trusting, customer-oriented experience, and feels great compared to the red tape you'll sometimes encounter elsewhere in Japan.
  • On the other side of this very trusting arrangement, I hear that rental agencies keep and share customer blacklists. An accident in a rental car for which you refuse to take responsibility, keeping a car longer than agreed without calling to inform the agency, or failure to pay the balance on a car returned late or without a full tank of gas could prevent you from being able to rent a car from any major agency in Japan again.
  • By the way, rental car services are available even if you are not a resident of Japan. However, in that case you'll be asked to provide contact information for the hotel, etc. where you are staying. So, even if you're just traveling here, it's not hard to arrange a rental car to let you occasionally escape the train lines and explore Japan's wonderful countryside.


  1. I probably choose renting a car rather than owning a car, even if I am going to live in Japan for a long time. It just seems more economical than owning a car since Japan has a well developed rail system.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ken.

    The rail system is great in MOST parts of Japan. A lot of the mountainous areas, however, have very, VERY slow service. My town has what is known as the slowest train in Japan. The average speed is 14km/h because it only has one track shared between trains going in both directions.

    Another good value option is leasing a car, which will be covered in the future.

  3. I had a question, I'm attempting to book a car using the website (in Canada), but when I enter my telephone number it throws an error that I should enter a normal-width number.

    I tried entering my emergency contact (Japanese number) twice, and it worked didn't error. Is there a way to enter a phone number from overseas?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Christopher. I thought of a couple possibilities:

    1) Did you add hyphens to the phone number? The site probably expects to get a number without hyphens (e.g. 2125558502 instead of 212-555-8502).

    2) Usually when a form like this complains about number width, though, it's talking about Japanese keyboard input (e.g. 01234) vs. Western keyboard input (e.g. 01234).

    Let us know if you're still having trouble!

  5. Also, reread your comment and realized that you said it *worked* with the Japanese phone number. (So this probably has nothing to do with suggestion 2) up there.) Are you adding country codes to the number? A US or Canadian number with its country code would have the same 11-digit length as a Japanese cellphone number, so I bet the system would accept it.

  6. You can also rent a car in Japan via cars-scanner service